Late last year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a new report on career readiness. The report is an impressive overview of what researchers have learned about career readiness based on decades of research and on trends across the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data. A shorter, practical summary for school leaders focused on How schools can help protect young people in a recession came out last month as well.

I sat down to discuss the report with its lead author, Anthony Mann, a Senior Policy Analyst with the OECD’s Directorate for Education and Skills. You can listen to the entire conversation below. Here’s a quick overview of what we covered:

  • Thinking about, exploring, and experiencing careers boosts career outcomes: The report synthesizes three key variables that contribute to career readiness. “Young people who think about [career guidance] more, who explore it more, and who experience it more, are being equipped to show a greater sense of agency and to think more critically about the relationship between education and employment,” Mann said. Notably, thinking, exploring, and experiencing appear to matter regardless of whether young people are navigating a tight or slack labor market. “We find that these relationships hold even in a recession when we can’t create lots of jobs, but we can make sure that young people have the best opportunity to compete for available work in a difficult labor market.”

  • Social capital and the strength of weak ties, or acquaintances, to expand access and increase wages: Mann noted the myriad ways students’ access to social capital drives career readiness. “I think social capital is hugely important in this area… [I]t links to a longitudinal study in the UK that follows 15- and 16-year-olds who talked about careers outside of school. We can imagine these are volunteers talking about how to be a firefighter or farmer and then we follow them ten years later and we find that the more interaction and the more talks they had, the bigger the wage premium they experienced later on,” Mann explained. “That fits with some of the theorizations of Mark Granovetter who argued that young people often have a narrow set of resources about them, so they might know a lot of people, but those people tend to know the same thing. To get ahead in work, you need a very broad network so that you know lots of different people and lots of different stuff. This is one of the great things schools can do to be a real agent for democratizing access to useful information.”

  • Distinguishing between “career talks” and “career conversations”—both of which can contribute to career readiness in different ways: Mann and I also talked about the practical things schools might do to expand students’ connections to the world of work. Interestingly, he noted that the research distinguishes between career talks and career conversations. A career talk is having a guest speaker who will come into a classroom to talk about the job they do for a short period of time. What I’ve seen work brilliantly is having a ‘career carousel’ with six or seven volunteers at a table and the kids have an opportunity to ask questions, so they grow in confidence. It’s very hard for them to hide if they’re doing this two or three times and getting that interaction,” Mann said. On the other hand, career conversations go deeper. According to the research, “Student career conversations are linked statistically with lower levels of career uncertainty and misalignment and, by national longitudinal studies, with better-than-expected employment outcomes. Career guidance and occupational exploration programs enable young people to develop critical thinking about the labor market and their potential roles within it.” 

During our chat, Mann underscored the power of these deeper conversations: “Ultimately, what we want is for [students] to have a sense of agency. We want them to become critical thinkers about who they are, who they might become, what they need to do to achieve it, and what the barriers might be. I think the best career systems in the world really encourage and enable those open conversations.”

Looking ahead, Mann and his team are adding practical examples and resources to their website, including profiles of programs putting their research into action.

Watch the full interview here: